The Blue Jays seem to be going through a surprising transition. They have one of the most potent offences in baseball, yet they rely heavily on dominant pitching in order to win. While it is great to see the opposition held in check the offence still has a job to do. The Jays have received strong production from their usual contributors, including Donaldson, Tulowitzki, and Travis. Yet, they have struggled to find much production at first base. That’s bizarre, as the position is typically reserved for powerful bats. Considering the offence’s recent slump, maybe something needs to change.
The State of First Base
Coming into this season, it looked like Chris Colabello would be the starting first baseman until Justin Smoak earned his spot back. A few weeks of poor hitting and a failed drug test later, Smoak became the everyday starter. His season started well enough, as he posted solid numbers through the first two months. The most noteworthy stats were Smoak’s walk rate and BABIP. Without those, he wouldn’t have had nearly as much success. That said, it really was only Smoak and Saunders who carried the offence over the first couple of months of the season. The Jays needed him, and he did his part.
Smoak’s production looked to be unsustainable, as it seemed he would eventually regress to the mean. The regression has now happened, and it has not been gradual. Smoak has plummeted back to Earth since the beginning of June. His walk rate is still solid, but his strikeout rate has grown, and his BABIP has diminished tremendously. Part of the reason for that decline is that he no longer hits line drives. Everything is high in the air or along the ground. Smoak’s numbers only look worse since the All-Star Break. The strikeouts have increased, the walks have decreased, and his OPS is down. All told, Smoak is now one of the weaker first basemen in the AL. That really makes his new contract hard to stomach.
The book seems to be out on Smoak. He swings a ton, and can’t hit a curveball. Pitchers know how to pitch to him. This has been an ugly stretch, which has raised the question of whether or not there are better alternatives available to man first base. Let’s have a look.
Gregor Chisholm – MLB.com
If the Jays are looking for a replacement at first, then Encarnacion should be the leading candidate. You know what he does on offence – he hits the ball hard, and drives in a ton of runs. Beyond his raw power, he also has strong K/BB numbers. Encarnacion goes through hot and cold streaks, but has consistently been one of the better hitters in baseball over the past four seasons. The big question mark is his fielding.
Encarnacion once had the nickname “E5” for how poorly he defended at third base in Cincinnati. While defensive metrics are far from perfect, they do suggest that he has improved in recent years. Encarnacion’s UZR/150 of 4.2 actually compares favourably to Smoak’s -2.5. Of course, Encarnacion plays primarily at DH to reduce wear and tear. The slugger has had trouble with his back in the past. Perhaps he isn’t suited to playing in the field every day. That said, if he is fit enough to do play, then he would be an excellent alternative to Smoak.
Assuming that Encarnacion cannot play every day due to his back, then maybe his partner should take over at first. It’s no secret that Jose Bautista is a poor fielding outfielder. His range is non-existent, and his once-powerful arm is no longer a threat. Bautista is a liability in right field, which is one of the reasons why the Jays acquired Melvin Upton Jr. Bautista has only played at first base for 154.0 innings in his career. He hasn’t been awful, but he’s far from a plus defender. That said, if the goal is to add some production to the lineup, then he would do. Upton’s defensive boost over Bautista, along with his net neutral offensive numbers, would outweigh Smoak’s spot in the lineup.
The trouble with this change is the human element. It’s easy to move players around on a Word document, but that ignores the fact that professional baseball players are also people. The Jays have been rather creative with their roster this year – they have moved Bautista to the leadoff spot, and convinced five of their starters to miss some starts in order to extend Sanchez. But moving Bautista to first might be a bridge too far. He is in the midst of a disappointing season ahead of his free agency. At the beginning of the year, one of his marketable qualities was that he could play in the field. It is hard to imagine that Bautista would agree to have that taken away from him with only two months left. While he could be serviceable at first, the move is unlikely to happen. If it were to, then already would have, now that Upton has arrived.
Looking beyond the Major League roster, perhaps there could be some help down on the farm. The aforementioned Colabello returned from his suspension in late July, and has spent time between Dunedin and Buffalo. His stint with the Bisons has been unimpressive, as he has posted a slash line of .179/.254/.286. It’s important to remember that some portion of his success last year came from an incredible .411 BABIP. In terms of defence, Colabello isn’t particularly strong. That didn’t matter last season, when he was a base hit machine. Until Colabello can show that he can hit in the minors, he won’t be a viable alternative for the Blue Jays. Colabello had a remarkable season in 2015, but it seems like the wind has been taken out of his sails.
Brian McLeod – MiLB.com
Sitting a level below Colabello lies Rowdy Tellez. The youngster has arguably become the organization’s #2 prospect behind Sean Reid-Foley. It’s easy to see why, as Tellez has hit at every level. That success has carried over in nearly 100 games with New Hampshire this season. The question is whether or not he can make the jump from AA to the Majors. Devon Travis and Joe Biagini are recent examples of AA players turned regulars for the Jays, but they both came up in Spring Training, not in August. The adjustment could be too sharp for Tellez to contribute in any meaningful way at this point in the season. There has also been some suggestion that the new front office prefers not to rush their prospects. Tellez could be an important contributor by 2018. I can’t see them being too keen to push him ahead this soon, just to replace Smoak. As such, we may see Tellez at some point next season, but to see him this season would be exceptionally early.
One other alternative is not currently in the organization. Joey Votto arguably has the best eye in baseball. He gets on base a ton, whether it be through walks or base hits. Votto could slide into any part of the Jays’ lineup. His defence leaves a little to be desired, but that is more than off-set by his offence. Remember, first base is meant to be an offence-first position. The bat comes first, and the defence second. The big hurdle for Votto would be to acquire him. He would have to pass through the August waiver trade procedure, and it’s unlikely that no other team would intervene. Furthermore, the Jays would have to be willing to eat a big chunk of his expensive contract. While Votto would be a nice luxury, he is likely beyond the realm of possibility. It’s fun to dream.
At this point in the season, it seems unlikely that the Jays will find an alternative to Smoak. He has the edge as a natural first baseman, and comes with Major League experience. If they were to explore other options, though, then Encarnacion would be the most suitable replacement. If the Jays could work a platoon between he and Bautista, with Smoak getting the occasional start, then they would be better for it. That approach would provide Encarnacion with some days off, get Bautista out of the field, and keep Smoak on the bench. Barring that change, we will just have to hope that Smoak breaks out of his current funk and begins to hit at a more respectable level.
What approach would you take? Have Smoak’s struggles been exaggerated due to the team’s current offensive slump, or is he genuinely a hindrance to the team? Sound off in the comments below.